Heading into the 2012 season, there were concerns about whether Pedro Alvarez could hit in the majors. Playing third base at the time, Alvarez was coming off a year where he posted a .191/.272/.289 line in 262 plate appearances, which was a far cry from the numbers he put up in his 2010 debut, where he had a .256/.326/.461 line in 386 plate appearances.
The Pirates stuck with Alvarez, and he responded with a .244/.317/.467 line, while hitting 30 homers in 586 plate appearances. It wasn’t the most dominant performance, but it was enough to get the Pirates, and Pirates fans, comfortable with Alvarez in the majors. Those numbers were extremely valuable from the third base position, where Alvarez didn’t have the best defense, but was passable.
Alvarez had a repeat of those numbers in 2013, but something changed in 2014. His power dropped, and he suddenly couldn’t make accurate throws from third base anymore. The defensive problems were so bad that the Pirates ended up replacing him at third with Josh Harrison, and eventually moved him to first base. And so, heading into the 2015 season, there were more concerns about Alvarez, only this time the concerns surrounded his ability to play defense.
Unfortunately, those concerns ended up being legit, and unlike 2012, Alvarez wasn’t able to make people comfortable with the idea that he could start for the Pirates in the future. The irony here is that Alvarez posted almost the exact offensive numbers that he had in 2012. However, those same offensive numbers at first base, combined with horrible defense at first base, were worth far less than the same numbers combined with poor defense at third, as you can see in the chart below.
Alvarez had a -9.1 UZR/150 at third base in 2012. He had a -26.4 UZR/150 at first base in 2015. That difference was primarily the reason he went from a guy you start to a replacement level player, despite the same offense. And the defense didn’t look to be getting better any time soon.
The Pirates switched Aramis Ramirez over to first base in the second half, but that was short-lived, as he moved back to third after Jung-ho Kang went down with an injury. They acquired Michael Morse as a right-handed platoon option at the deadline, and saw him put up good numbers down the stretch. They also used Sean Rodriguez in a defensive-replacement role, getting offense from Alvarez early in the game, and defense from Rodriguez late when they had a lead. This led to some controversy in the Wild Card game when they started Rodriguez to get defense early, although Alvarez didn’t provide any offense when they made the switch after two and a half innings, striking out three times.
The defensive problems at first base for Alvarez make it seem unlikely that he will return for the 2016 season, especially since he is due for a raise in arbitration to a projected $8.1 M.
Defense was a problem not just for Alvarez, but also for the first baseman of the future, Josh Bell. The Pirates moved Bell to first base over the off-season, due to the fact that they had their outfield set for the future in Pittsburgh with Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, and Starling Marte. They also didn’t have any first base prospects in the upper levels, which made the move of Bell to first make sense across the board.
Bell struggled with his defense throughout the year, and while there were times he showed improvements, he’s not yet a finished product. This was shown at the end of the year when he missed two routine catches in the playoffs.
The defensive struggles are a bit more expected in Bell’s case. He’s an outfielder who is now getting his first experience in the infield. Not only does he have to learn a new position, but he also has to adjust to the speed of the game and being involved in every play. In Alvarez’s case, you’ve got a third baseman moving across the diamond to the opposite corner, which isn’t exactly easy, but isn’t as difficult with the speed of the game aspect.
Bell also had to focus on improving his hitting at the same time, and those results ended up much stronger than the defense. He experimented with a leg kick throughout the year, but never became fully comfortable with the addition in Altoona. After making an adjustment in Triple-A, Bell started seeing better results, especially in the power department. He put up a .347/.441/.504 line in 145 plate appearances, with a .157 ISO, showing an improvement over his .120 ISO in Altoona.
There is a lot of raw power from Bell that is largely untapped, and the hope is that this adjustment will finally tap into that raw power. The power largely comes from the left side, with Bell showing some alarming platoon splits. He had a .334/.419/.501 line in 415 plate appearances from the left side this year, compared to a .275/.323/.310 line in 157 plate appearances from the right side. The swing from the left side is smooth, and the power comes easy. The swing from the right side can look awkward at times, is largely inconsistent, and as a result, lacks power.
Bell is in no way a finished product. He’s still in the minors for a reason, and still making adjustments to try and fix the issues he currently has. So while it’s a possibility that he will result in a poor defensive option who is only good at the plate against right-handers, there is still time for him to show improvements. He’s a very smart player and is open to coaching, even when the adjustments make him uncomfortable, which means he could make the necessary changes quickly.
The Pirates will need a first baseman for at least the first half of the 2016 season, and it doesn’t look like Alvarez will be that guy. They do have Michael Morse on the roster, and he wouldn’t be a bad stopgap until Bell arrives. It was only a year ago that Morse put up a .279/.336/.475 line with the Giants. He had a .275/.390/.391 line in his short time with the Pirates, and while the power was down, he showed tremendous raw power in batting practice, including putting home runs on the upper levels of the rotunda at PNC Park on several occasions.
Morse doesn’t have good defense, but he’s much better than Alvarez, and his offensive upside would be enough to take a gamble on. He also doesn’t really have platoon splits, so he could be a regular starter during the first half, and an insurance option for Bell as a platoon guy in the second half if Bell doesn’t fix his issues from the right side of the plate.